Severe Tropical Cyclone Pam, which swept through the South Pacific Island state of Vanuatu in mid-March, has deepened hardships faced by people living in the informal settlements of the capital, Port Vila. Winds of up to 340 kph and torrential rain shattered precarious homes, cut off fragile public services and flooded communities with unsealed roads, poor drainage and sanitation.
“Eighty percent of my community has been affected by the cyclone,” Joel, a Port Vila resident, told IPS, describing that his house was damaged by gale force winds. “We have enough food, but the quality of the water has been very bad.”
Other city residents saw their homes completely destroyed. In the last week, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) found 50 people still sheltering in a shed-like structure in the informal settlements a month after the cyclone. They are in need of food, water and sanitation as they wait for assistance to rebuild their homes.
Vanuatu is an archipelago of more than 80 islands and an estimated 265,000 people located northeast of Australia. Sixty-three percent of the population, or close to 166,000 people, were affected by Cyclone Pam, which counted a death toll of 11 and is thought to be the worst natural disaster in the country’s history.
The main urban centre of Port Vila, situated on the southwest coast of Efate Island, is very exposed to severe weather and sea surges. An estimated 30-40 percent of its 44,000 residents live in informal settlements, such as Freswota and Seaside. Here, sub-standard housing, inadequate basic services and overcrowding all contribute to a poverty rate of 18 percent in Port Vila, in contrast to 10 percent in rural areas.
In the wake of Cyclone Pam, Peter Korisa, operations manager at Vanuatu’s National Disaster Management Office, said, “Most of the displaced in urban and peri-urban areas have been highly devastated and are vulnerable to future shocks. The scale of devastation to homes and infrastructure is huge. Bridges and roads have also been damaged and that will definitely be a high cost in the recovery effort.”
Frido Herinckx, head of the International Red Cross support team in Vanuatu, told IPS that he had witnessed serious damage in the urban settlements. “During the first week after the cyclone there were 43 evacuation centres in Port Vila supporting 4,000-5,000 people,” he said.
United Nations Spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric said this past Friday that only 36 percent of the U.N.’s ‘flash appeal’ for 30 million dollars has so far been pledged. He called attention to the fact that 111,000 people have no access to safe drinking water, and warned that the destruction of 90 percent of the country’s crops spelled danger for those who rely on agriculture for a livelihood.
While most people live in rural areas, urbanisation, driven by people seeking jobs and services, is happening at a rapid rate of four percent in Vanuatu, exceeding the state’s capacity to scale up urban planning. One quarter of the national population is now urban and that is predicted to increase to 53 percent by 2050.
Situated on the ‘Pacific Ring of Fire’ and in a tropical climate zone south of the equator, with a cyclone season from November to April, the developing island state is vulnerable to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, cyclones and tsunamis.
It has been hit by at least 20 damaging cyclones in the past 25 years and only one year has passed since Cyclone Lusi impacted 20,000 people across northern and central provinces, destroying villages and crops, in 2014. According to the United Nations, Vanuatu has the most exposed population to natural disasters in the world, at 63.6 percent.
The vulnerability of the urban population is heightened by the makeshift state of 27 percent of houses in the capital. Constructing a strong, resilient house is too expensive and financial credit is unaffordable for many residents who live on low wages.
In the Freswota settlement area, home to 7,000-8,000 people, Chief Kalanga Sawia explained, “The government’s objective is to provide housing for the people, but they can only provide the land. The government doesn’t have the financial resources to build houses as well.”
Therefore, people have turned to building improvised dwellings as best they can with salvaged or cheaply bought materials, such as timber, corrugated iron, tin and fabric.
While power, water and communication services were all crippled by the disaster, Herinckx said, “[B]asic services are now back to the state they were before the cyclone, which is not optimal.”
Residents of the Freswota 2 sub-settlement, for instance, usually have access to a water supply, but only half have electricity. Across the country, only 28 percent of people have access to electricity and 64 percent to sanitation.
Recognising the threat disasters pose to lives, development efforts and the economy, the Vanuatu Government has worked to strengthen the nation’s disaster preparedness.
Nine years ago, it became the first Pacific Island country to integrate disaster risk management into national planning and, in 2013, a new state-of-the-art disaster warning centre capable of monitoring volcanic, seismic, and tsunami activity, operating 24/7, opened in Port Vila.
As Cyclone Pam approached, new technology was used to issue warnings and advice to people via text messages, reaching more than 80 percent of the population.
However, as one of the world’s Least Developed Countries (LDCs), Vanuatu has minimal capacity to cope with the relentless destructive toll of catastrophes year upon year. Korisa, of the National Disaster Management Office, claims that post-disaster recovery in Port Vila’s settlements will be very slow and hindered by land tenure issues, finance and resource constraints.
Currently the Red Cross is helping people in the settlements to build back better after the cyclone “by advising people on simple methods of building homes so they are more stress resistant,” Herinckx said.
But looking to the future, Korisa emphasised that more investment is needed in urban disaster risk reduction measures.
“For instance, the building code needs to be applied and enforced in all dwellings, including private, commercial and public buildings, and land use planning policy needs to be improved and implemented.”
Edited by Kanya D’Almeida